Console Quality and High-Perf ARM Processing
Console Quality Gaming

NVIDIA is in the console world, courtesy of Sony’s failure to predict how 3D graphics have evolved combined with the limitations of the Cell processor and archticture.  NVIDIA was able to slip in with a console optimized GeForce 7900 GPU, and the PS3 was given the ability to compete with Microsoft and the XBox 360.  Here we are six years later and NVIDIA is approaching the overall performance and capabilities of that console GPU in a mobile, low power form.

While Tegra 2 will not have the raw horsepower to overcome the Reality Synthesizer graphics chip on the PS3, it can at least run a lot of the same code (albeit slower in the milliwatt range that Tegra 2 runs in).  We were shown several current and upcoming gaming products that run faster and better on the Tegra 2 than most current phones.

Angry birds was very fluid to watch, and it proved no problem to the next generation hardware in the Optimus 2X.  Flash games also ran without a problem, even PC based flash games which are available on the internet.  It was a smooth and seamless experience, and I am not just talking about gaming.  In all applications that NVIDIA showed off, the phone was crisp and responsive.

3D gaming is still a new world for handheld gaming.  Though the PSP and DS products from Sony and Nintendo have paved the way, we are now looking at a widespread adoption which will overshadow anything that has come before.  We have seen our first couple of handheld phone based 3D games using both the id Rage Engine as well as the Epic Unreal 3 Engine.  With the Tegra 2 graphics, we should see a good increase in performance and capabilities in the application of these engines to next generation content.

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Some of the 10 apps which were running on the phone at the same time.

Two examples we saw were again very impressive.  Trendy Entertainment showed off their upcoming title “Dungeon Defender”, which is a multi-platform game focused on cooperative gameplay.  It was shown off playing on the PC, the PS3, and the Optimus 2X.  Not only was the game playing on all three platforms, but all three players were actually playing together.  It was a bit of a trip to see a nicely rendered game being played on all three platforms, and all of them working seamlessly together to provide a good gaming experience to all three.   Trying to finish one more round with your friends online in a game?  Fire up the phone, get on the bus, go to work, and don’t miss a beat while smashing the competition.

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Three platforms, one multi-player game.  A glimpse of the future?

The other impressive title was from Chillings (distributor of Angry Birds).  “Soulcraft” is based on the Unreal 3 engine, and the amount of shader and lighting effects which could be successfully run on a mobile part was again pretty impressive.  This game is still looking early in the development phase, but the engine demo was neat to watch.  While certainly not matching what can be done on a modern desktop GPU, it is a huge step in the direction of immersive handheld gaming.

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NVIDIA and the Future of Processing

For ages there has been speculation that NVIDIA was going to enter the x86 market.  Of course, the issues facing the company wanting to compete against both Intel and AMD, all without a x86 license, are nearly insurmountable.  Now we have finally gotten a peek at the truth behind NVIDIA hiring as many processor designers as they have over the past several years.

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NVIDIA is now represented in nearly every level of the computing market.  From hand held units, to laptops, to desktops, and now to the high performance server (via Tesla), NVIDIA is well represented.  Now that representation is going to change dramatically.
NVIDIA is developing a brand new Arm based processing core, in conjunction with Arm Holdings.  This will not be a product developed by Arm, and available to everyone else under license.  This core should be unique to NVIDIA, and it could be a game changer.

Some months ago I had speculated that Arm is going to find their way into newer, high performance markets.  Mainly I was consdering that Arm is a logical choice for next generation consoles.  Consider the code base that most developers are working in, with Arm being the predominant computing platform for mobile applications.  Now scale the performance (and power consumption) of an Arm product, in a quad core package, and suddenly we have what is looking like a great console based CPU.  Still lower power than comparable Power and x86 products, but able to perform in the latest games.  Now scale that idea up to where we see a much larger thermal envelope for a console chip, and that appears to be (at least in the beginning) to what NVIDIA is attempting to do.

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NVIDIA has a potential marketplace that could easily overshadow the actual shipments of giants such as Intel

The development costs of programming for multiple computing environments is expensive.  Developing for x86, PowerPC, and separate handheld chips leads to many problems.  That means longer design cycles due to troubleshooting issues on the separate, distinct platforms.  Consolidating development for at least consoles and handhelds into one programming model should save most companies some money and manhours.

NVIDIA does not seem to be stopping there.  The aim is to create processors which will not only run in consoles and handhelds, but also higher performing tablets, notebooks, desktops and servers.  Microsoft will soon announce that Windows will now be developed to run on Arm processors.  This opens up a huge world of software and support, and opens the way for another major processor developer to compete with Intel and AMD in the desktop market and above.

Project Denver is the codename of this project, and it has been underway for some years now.  There was obviously a lot of forethought going on at NVIDIA, and to set this development into action was a major seachange for NVIDIA.  We now see why NVIDIA has moved away from chipsets, and has reassigned those people to SOC development in the Tegra division.

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NVIDIA is far from being toast.  While many predicted that the company would eventually sell itself and its portfolio to Intel, it now appears that NVIDIA is going to do fine for itself.  It has seemingly succesfully transitioned from a graphics company to a fully featured semiconductor developer addressing multiple markets with distinct products.

With partners like the gaming companies, Skype, Verizon, LG and others, NVIDIA is posed for a bit of a resurgence from its nightmare that was most of 2009 through 2010.  Fermi delays behind, and a seeming limitless market opening up for it on the mobile side, 2011 could be the year NVIDIA makes a huge stride forward.

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